Hamlet by William Shakespeare
What’s Behind the Mask: the Reality Beneath Appearances in Hamlet “[People] in this world have to live two lives, the one they present to the world and the inner world of their own thoughts and feelings…[and] the appearance of things does not always or often mesh with the inner reality”(Johnston). One of Shakespeare’s most highly regarded plays, Hamlet, is full of characters that live behind false identities and guard the reality of who they truly are from other characters. Claudius appears to be a calm and collected leader who is completely in control of the country after the loss of his brother, while on the inside he struggles with the grief of knowing that he was the one who ended his brother’s life.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet’s schoolmates, show a similar conflict between their exterior appearance and who they really are beneath the surface when they attempt to carry out the king’s orders. Even Hamlet chooses to put on multiple faces when dealing with different characters throughout the play so that he can better mask who he really is. It is through the use of these characters’ thoughts and actions, a large amount of soliloquies, and strikingly vivid Biblical allusions that Shakespeare conveys to the audience the notion that one’s appearance does not always match the reality of who they are on the inside and that things are not always as they seem. As noted by Bertram Joseph “…when the play opens it is by no means certain that Claudius is a villain. Even when the Prince swears vengeance there is still a strong possibility that the Ghost’s word ought not to be taken”(Joseph). When the audience first meets Claudius, he appears as a well organized leader, controlling the country with decisive, authoritative commands, and responding maturely to the threat that young Fortinbras poses.
Not long after, Hamlet’s confrontation with the ghost of his father brings new light to who Claudius really is. The ghost’s depiction of the murder, of how “A serpent stung [him]”(1.5.43) while he was “…sleeping within [his] orchard”(1.5.66), creates a vivid Biblical allusion that compares the death of old Hamlet to the story of the devil, portrayed as a serpent, convincing Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden.
Additionally, the description of how he died “…by [his] brother’s hand”(1.5.81) evokes images of Cain killing his brother, Abel. With these two allusions being used throughout the account of the murder, the audience now relates Claudius to two of the world’s most infamous villains, Cain and the devil, the latter of whom is quite arguably the most deceitful and two-faced being on the planet. Even with this striking depiction of the murder from the ghost, however, Claudius is still able to maintain some credibility as a blameless ruler, for as Joseph states, “It is because men are only human that hypocrites like Claudius are able to pass themselves off successfully”(Joseph).
Claudius carries his disguise so convincingly that Hamlet doubts what he heard from the ghost and devises a scheme “Wherein [he’ll] catch the conscience of the King”(2.2.634), so that he’ll have more credible proof that Claudius indeed killed his father. In the end, Claudius exposes his true self to the audience when he tries to pray, confirming the fact that he murdered his brother and that he is far from who he appeared to be. While Claudius is the main culprit of being deceptive and fallacious, many of the other characters portray similar traits, namely Hamlet, Polonius, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who try to appear friendly and kind spirited with Hamlet, saying that they have come for the funeral, are secretly spying on Hamlet for the king (though their disguises are rather transparent to Hamlet).
Polonius puts on a similar mask with Hamlet, trying to ascertain whether or not Hamlet’s sudden change in personality is due to his love for Ophelia. This apparent insanity on Hamlet’s part, however, is also a disguise. Hamlet puts on so many different faces, in fact, that Shakespeare felt he needed to include a large amount of lines in which Hamlet speaks his thoughts so that the audience could keep track of what Hamlet’s true nature actually was. Even Gertrude becomes sick when Hamlet reveals to her the reality of who she is and exclaims that “Thou turn’st my eyes into my very soul, and there I see such black and grained spots as will not leave their tinct”(3.4.
102). In a sense, nearly everyone is trying to deceive each other. Johnston adds that “the professional actors are a huge relief because you know exactly where you stand with them”(Johnston). The only characters that are exactly as they appear are they players, for it is their profession to act as they appear and they have “…no inner agenda working against the role they play”(Johnston). Everyone hides behind a mask of some kind.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, nearly all of the characters put on disguises as they try to deceive not only the other characters, but the audience as well. Hamlet’s appearance shifts so much that Shakespeare had to give him a startling amount of lines expressing his thoughts to help the audience understand his true temperament. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern attempt to fool Hamlet as they spy on him for the king. Claudius, who covers up the murder of his own brother with a calm and collected appearance, is able to get Hamlet (and even the audience) questioning whether or not he committed the murder. It is with these characters, a large number of soliloquies, and allusions to some of the Bible’s most infamous villains that Shakespeare is able to convey his belief that the appearance of something is never the reality, that “…you can never be sure whether [someone] is a friend or a foe, whether what he is saying to you is what he really means or whether it is all just a temporary role he is playing in this dangerous and duplicitous game”(Johnston).